When a US secretary of state tells an Arab country to follow Libya’s example, and a US president praises colonel Mu’ammar Qaddafi for his "wise" and "responsible" decision, the view that the Bush administration’s foreign policy is fundamentally and cynically imperial is reinforced.
Since the 1980s Washington has treated Libya as a "rogue state" and Qaddafi as a dangerous lunatic. President Reagan even bombed Qaddafi’s camp in Tripoli (1986) in an attempt to assassinate him. The Americans disdained to respond to Tripoli’s efforts – conducted for the past decade through London mainly by Saif al-Islam, Qaddafi’s son – to woo them. But Qaddafi’s abject pledge – in a deal first announced on December 19 – to disclose and destroy his country’s WMDs and to cooperate in the ‘war against terrorism’ set the stage for relaunching him as a "responsible" leader and Libya as a "respectable" state.
Tony Blair, the British prime minister, said that Qaddafi’s decision was a "historic and courageous one". Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, applauded his "huge statesmanship"; secretary of state Colin Powell made his contribution during an interview with Sky News on January 16, saying that he had told Syria to follow Libya’s example, in particular by ending its support for terrorists, particularly those who complicate the search for peace between Palestinians and Israelis (an allusion to Hizbullah and Palestinian Islamic groups).
The first unambiguous sign of a thaw between the US and Libya came when it was announced that a congressional delegation, led by Republican congressman Curt Weldon, would visit Tripoli on January 25. Weldon was quoted as saying that "we will reassure him [Qaddafi] that once Libya lives up to its end of the bargain, we can finally begin the process of normalising our relationship." The last congressional delegation to visit Libya did so before 1969, when Qaddafi seized power.
Weldon is not alone in saying that the colonel should live up to his end of the bargain. Bush himself continues to insist that US sanctions will remain in place until Qaddafi carries out his pledge in full. Both Britain and the UN ended their sanctions when Qaddafi agreed to pay compensation to the families of those who died in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 (1988), and handed over two Libyan agents who were suspected of the bombing.
The Americans know that Qaddafi has already carried out a substantial part of his promise, but are nevertheless maintaining strong pressure on him, despite their public acknowledgement of his capitulation. He has allowed entrance to UN inspectors and both American and British diplomats, security and intelligence experts to inspect and dismantle the presumed WMD-programme. Qaddafi has also apparently made substantial concessions to Israel, authorising secret contacts by Libyan officials with Israeli diplomats and politicians. The contacts were widely reported in the Israeli media recently.
But, according to US and British experts, Qaddafi’s providing detailed information on the Libyan Islamic movement and on al-Qa’ida and its allies has impressed the Americans the most, although they have always valued his war on Islamic activists, considering him an undeclared ally against the global Islamic movement. In an election year in which the Bush administration has turned its ‘war on terrorism’ into a vital national issue, Qaddafi’s contribution is bound to be appreciated.
Bush is using the Iraq war, the capture of Saddam and Qaddafi’s volte face as evidence of the success of his ‘war on terror’. Attributing Qaddafi’s climb-down to the war, he argued recently that 15 years of negotiations had failed to bring the "Iraqi dictator" to his senses. The conclusion he wants American voters to draw from all this is that the use of force and promise of reward are proving effective instruments of his foreign policy strategy to get rid of WMDs and of "dangerous dictators and terrorists", all of which are a threat to the security of the US and its allies.
But Western analysts have pointed out that Qaddafi began to sue for peace long before the Iraq war, arguing that his "astonishing" concessions are attributable more to domestic factors than to his fear of removal by Bush. They have cited the arrival of the internet and satellite television, which have shown to the Libyan people "how backward they are compared to other nations", the spread of poverty as a result of economic sanctions, and the increasing opposition by Islamic and secular Libyans, as the real reasons. In several Arab countries there has been widespread speculation that Qaddafi is wooing the Americans to make easier the transfer of power to his son. The speculation is based on the widespread belief that he is seriously ill.
Oddly, Qaddafi would rather have his capitulation attributed to his desire to avoid a fate similar to Saddam’s than to a need for US protection against internal opponents. In an interview with Le Figaro on the eve of the Iraq war, for instance, Qaddafi exhibited new signs of respect for US unilateral intervention. "When Bush has finished with Iraq, we’ll quickly have a clear idea of where he is going," he said. "It won’t take long to find out if Iran, Saudi Arabia or Libya will be targets as well." It fell to his son, however, to deny that Tripoli’s deal with Washington and London had anything to do with the Iraq war. Saif al-Islam insisted on December 20 that the war was not a factor in his country’s decision. He said: "We started the cooperation even before the invasion of Iraq and we decided to announce the outcome of that cooperation two weeks ago. Really it was a long and tough secret negotiation... two weeks ago we closed the deal and we said ‘OK, done deal, announce it’."
Saif al-Islam could have added that he had even conducted negotiations with Israeli politicians to persuade the Americans that his father is serious in his desire for a strategic relationship with the US. Two Israeli MPs – Ephraim Sneh, an opposition member of the Knesset, and Ilan Shalgi from the Shinui Party – asserted in January that they had met Saif al-Islam last August. Sneh said: "My impression from this meeting was that Qaddafi has made a strategic decision, and he is not a man of small steps... He could go as far as relations with Israel, and beyond."
There is little doubt that Qaddafi is in a desperate situation that urgently needs a solution. Not only is he faced with internal problems, but both his pro-Arab and pro-African policies have failed, to the extent that he threatened recently to take Libya out of the Arab League. But his choice will only succeed in creating more problems, not only for himself but also for other Muslim countries.
Pakistani scientists, for instance, are already being accused of selling nuclear technology to Libya and Iran as a result of information allegedly gathered by US intelligence experts inspecting Libyan installations. Neither Qaddafi nor Bush is above fabricating evidence to frame Islamic groups or Muslim countries on which they wish to put political pressure to fall into line. Ironically, the Americans may have been right to describe Qaddafi as a "dangerous lunatic", though that does not mean that no one else is. But, alas, Qaddafi is dangerous not only to them but to his own people and to Muslims at large. He may even prove dangerous to the US, now that he is its ally, by setting Arabs and other Muslims even more firmly against it.